The ways of the court
St George's, Hanover Square
George Frideric Handel: Esther
Rosemary Joshua (Esther), Rebecca Outram (Israelite Woman), Susan Bickley (Mordecai), Andrew Kennedy (First Israelite), Cecilia Osmond (Second Israelite), James Bowman (Ahasuerus), Christopher Purves (Haman)
Laurence Cummings (conductor)
London Handel Orchestra and ChorusRosemary Joshua (Esther), Rebecca Outram (Israelite Woman), Susan Bickley (Mordecai), Andrew Kennedy (First Israelite), Cecilia Osmond (Second Israelite), James Bowman (Ahasuerus), Christopher Purves (Haman)
Laurence Cummings (conductor)
London Handel Orchestra and Chorus
The London Handel Festival ended with the first subsequent performance of the exact 1732 version of Handel's Esther and an appeal for support to keep going. The comparatively unfamiliar work didn't, alas, make much of a case for the infinite value of everything by Handel: most of the good stuff is recycled and already widely performed, for example the lovely anthem "My heart is inditing", and another one not a million parasangs from "Zadok the priest. Handel often reused material to make it greater, of course -- Theodora and Jephtha, both ground-breaking works, have a high proportion of well lived-in music -- but his adaptations in the 1732 Esther are closer in spirit to the mountain plonked on stage in the third act of the 1733 Rinaldo, there to add bulk and novelty rather than substance.
There is some entertainment, though, in wondering what is really going on in the 1732 Esther. The first version was written in 1718 while Handel was at Cannons, and the libretto is attributed to the Catholic Pope and his Jacobite pals. It is a strictly private and experimental work, the first Italian-style scriptural oratorio in English, closely related, strangely enough, both to Acis and Galatea in its morbid and monstrous eroticism and to the Brockes Passion in its related themes of torment and redemption, and in much of its music. These connections suggest that Esther might be apolitical, an innovative attempt at English biblical tragedy; but given the collaborators, it is at least as likely that it is Jacobite, and that Ahasuerus is in part the figure of a Hanoverian. Yet the 1732 version was a royal commission, and the king and queen attended most of the performances. The included Coronation Anthems, and the classical trick of depicting a bad monarch to show what the current monarch isn't like might be defences against the original Jacobite interpretation.
But Hasse's setting of Metastasio's Artaxerxes had been a smash hit in the meantime. Perhaps Handel, finding things getting tough in the mainstream Italian opera market, was also anticipating Arne in putting on an English opera seria about the Persian king, in spite of his famous refusal to do English opera. Ahasuerus is called Artaxerxes in the Septuagint, although historians generally identify him with Herodotus' and Xenophon's Xerxes, father of Metastasio's Artaxerxes. This makes Handel's Serse, a more romantic comedy of royal murderousness a few years later, a prequel to Esther.
Yet Esther has some characteristics in common with Handel's earlier scriptural oratorios, notably Deborah, with the Israelites in conflict to the death with ethnic enemies in a way that can stand in for the Protestant British versus their Papist foes. Haman's first recitative and aria ("...All the Jewish race shall bleed..." "Pluck root and branch from out the land") make uncomfortable listening, both literally as a (probably accidental) foreshadowing of modern antisemitism and as a horrific demonization of "our" enemies, a kind of inverted blood libel.
The London Handel Festival's performance probably inevitably didn't have much sense of what was going on. The good music got its due, especially the included anthems, and James Bowman was a wonderfully alien Ahasuerus, completely integrating the rhetoric of the words and of the music in a sinisterly controlled performance. The other singers seemed fuzzy in comparison. Rosemary Joshua as Esther and Susan Bickley as Mordecai both seemed out of their vocal elements, although both may have been under-rehearsed, while Christopher Purves as Haman was suitably thuggish and chilly, becoming pathetic in his final unsuccessful appeal to Esther for mercy, but his singing was a touch woolly and the words wooffy at times.
The chorus was splendid in the anthems, and the orchestra was spirited, though the brass put up a fight at some crucial points.